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July 27, 2002
The road to Kuwait City is a six-lane superhighway populated by exotic European luxury cars and the latest SUV’s. It has pedestrian overpasses, well-designed exit-ramps, and trash-free grassy medians that rival anything the U.S. has to offer. The city itself has gleaming skyscrapers, rows of mansions, a lively stock market, stately government buildings and manicured parks. American-style malls sport fast-food restaurants, fine clothing stores, and fashionably-dressed shoppers. If it weren’t for Arabic signage and preponderance of mosques, one might think this was Los Angeles, or Dallas.
But no American city has ever had to endure what the Kuwaitis did for seven long months a decade ago.
In 1990, Kuwait City lay in ruin. Following their lightening-fast invasion of August 2, the Iraqi army proved to be a brutal occupier; setting fires to homes, offices, and oil wells, indiscriminately rounding up Kuwaiti citizens and shipping them back to Bagdad for use as human shields, looting private houses and stores of art and jewelry, beating and executing people at will. But what tore at the soul of the Kuwaiti people was Iraq’s declaration that their nation simply no longer existed.
“The simple act of occupation is a repulsive act,” says Dr. Muhammed al Sabah, Kuwait’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. “I can tolerate pain and suffering, but I cannot tolerate the idea I will be stateless in a matter of hours. To be a refugee roaming around the country, this is the most devastating and painful experience anyone can have.”
It was a defining period for this wealthy Gulf state which had known only prosperity and peace since it gained nationhood in 1961. Before the invasion, the only criticism most Kuwaitis ever heard was that they could be arrogant at times, and weren’t always very nice to the help. But there is a humility present today, even though the Kuwaitis remain unbelievably rich, that outsiders say can only be attributed to the twin epiphanies of defeat…and deliverance.
This is a nation humbled by what they almost lost, what they did lose, what they can still lose, but it’s also a nation of very, very grateful people.
“We have a saying in Arabic; we are brothers with different mothers,” says General Ali al-Momon, who once commanded a Kuwaiti tank company during the gulf war and who now serves as the Army Chief of Staff. “Our bond with America is unbreakable.”
Safa al Masaeid sits at a Pizza Hut restaurant, dressed in Western-style clothing and enjoying the appreciative glances of the young men who walk by. “We know who is our friend and not our friend.” She says in the Gulf War, America proved they care about other people, even people who are different from them.
Although Safa wears makeup and Gap jeans, she intends to one day begin wearing the traditional robes and veil of the more conservative Muslim women, a style of dress that has become more common in Kuwait over the past few years. There is no contradiction in that for her. “I am free by my clothes, by my ideas, by everything, but you know, I have some of my tradition that I must keep. This is my religion.”
In contrast to other parts of the Arab world, women in Kuwait are free to do most things – they drive, they go to college, they can walk with and talk to men without a chaperon, they can have jobs. What they can’t do is vote for parliament or hold political office.
When Kuwait’s monarch, the emir, recently proposed a law giving women suffrage, a raucous parliament voted it down. On one hand, this showed Kuwait is a functioning democracy where the elected body holds legislative power; on the other, it revealed the influence of a handful of very vocal, determined politicians, locally dubbed “the Islamics” whose victories in the assembly of late far outweigh their numbers. In addition to denying women the vote, this conservative Muslim group insisted that a five-year old law requiring the segregation of the sexes at all universities be strictly enforced.
They can accomplish such measures in the face of popular disapproval by forming coalitions with other factions, such as the “Tribals” or “Traditionalists,” and by virtue of the fact that there is no single majority party to countervail. In fact, officially, political parties don’t even exist, which, critics say, gives the organizational and fund-raising advantages to the Islamics, who’ve allegedly been free to use monies raised in mosques for their political purposes. There are currently measures being proposed to limit the use of such “charity” funds.
But the growing sense of a subtle but rising Islamic conservatism has put Kuwait on the defensive. The image of U.S. soldiers fighting for a culture with diametrically-different values than their own is not one the government here wants to allow to thrive.
Dr. Muhammed al Sabah insists there is no danger of Kuwait suddenly becoming anti-American. “Conservative in the context of Kuwait does not mean to get away (from the West) or isolationism, for example, or anti-Western. No, absolutely not. The concept of radicalism is alien to Kuwaiti culture.”
Some, such as newspaper editor, Bibi al-Marzook, say it’s more important for the nation to set aside women’s suffrage for now in consideration of longer-term political stability. “Personally, no, I don’t want the right to vote. I’m afraid it will strengthen the religious movement in Kuwait.”
Her fear is, because Muslim men are allowed up to four wives, they may try to influence votes and tip the scale of power in the country. Better to take a few years, she explains, to educate the potential female electorate about things like secret ballots and the power of the vote first. “It is more than an issue of equality. It takes movements to change a society. It takes initiatives to change society.”
Meanwhile, the other topic of conversation at many of the popular social gatherings, called diwaniyas, remains, as usual, the possibility of U.S. military action against Iraq. Despite government statements urging United Nations approval before any such move is made, many Kuwaitis are straightforward about their hopes for immediate and decisive war.
“No one will stop the U.S.,” Ambassador Abdullah Bishara says, “but Kuwait will always have to say something that will acknowledge international legitimacy.”
Dr. al Sabah believes that legitimacy has been established by numerous Security Council resolutions already in existence under the Gulf War cease-fire. “If Iraq continues to defy the international will, continues to refuse our (United Nations) inspectors back and the release of (the 605) Kuwaiti prisoners (of war), and that sort of thing, I think Iraq will be in a breech of a cease-fire and I think there is a basis for action.”
Given what happened twelve years ago, given the fact that Iraq continues to challenge Kuwait’s sovereignty through statements in its media, and given the fact that the Iraqi army regularly masses along the border as it did in the weeks prior to the invasion, a constant state of high alert has become a way of life in Kuwait, despite the placid exterior of this most modern of cities.
For many Kuwaitis, the Gulf War has never ended, will never end, until the threat from the north is dealt with once and for all.
And when, and if, that day does come, Ambassador Bishara says his countrymen will finally believe that the dark months of a decade ago will at last be put to rest, and the chance to have normalized relations with the Iraqi people can once again be possible. “There will be jubilation in the streets,” he says. “You know Brazil’s carnival? It would be a Gulf carnival!”
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